SENIOR ADVOCATE – April 27, 2022
Q: I recently went to a friend’s home for the first time, and I think she may be a hoarder because the house was filled with junk. How can I help her?
A: Hoarding is a serious issue that causes stress and unsafe living conditions. If your friend is hoarding, it is wonderful that you want to offer help. Hoarding is a condition where someone has a compulsive need to saves items regardless of their value. It is different then someone who is a collector of items because those will all fit into a category that makes sense. Hoarders will hold onto items that may not be related to each other, and the clutter that results negatively affects their quality of life.
In severe hoarding cases the pathways, windows and doorways may be obstructed, causing many safety hazards. Fall risks increase, as well as the ability to evacuate safely. Rodents and bugs may become rampant in a severally hoarded home, as well, causing other health hazards.
People who hoard will have trouble giving away or throwing away any of their belongings. Items of no value to most of us will have meaning to the person who holds onto them. For this reason, we need to be thoughtful in how we approach the issue with the person who is hoarding.
The possessions provide a safety net, like a security blanket. If someone went in and attempted to clean out these items without their permission, the person who is hoarding will experience severe distress. They will also seek to re-hoard again and bring back items.
People with a hoarding condition will often have other difficulties in functioning. They may have trouble making decisions or concentrating. They may experience anxiety or depression, or have other mental health issues. It is never just about cleaning up. Rather, the underlying mental health issues will need to be dealt with to allow the person the ability to make changes in their life.
A good place to start is by educating yourself on hoarding, so that you can better understand the complex issues behind it. It will help you see the person within their environment and allow you to approach your friend with empathy.
Be ready to have a conversation with your friend that comes from a place of caring. Respect your friend’s needs and privacy. Reflect gently on what you observed and share why it concerns you. Ask your friend if they have ever sought help for this before and if they are willing to now.
Hoarding cannot simply be fixed by bringing in a cleaning crew. The behaviors will not change and the trauma of getting rid of the person’s treasured belongings too quickly will be severe. It is important to have realistic expectations and set reasonable goals in the process of decluttering. That means that even small victories need to be celebrated along the way.
You can offer to help by researching support groups or therapists for your friend. Many people recognize they have an issue, but are overwhelmed by how to make changes and where to start.
The International OCD Foundation offers a variety of resources including a search for therapists in your area that specialize in hoarding. You can learn more on their website https://iocdf.org/
Any time hoarding is a safety concern for an older adult or a dependent adult, you can contact your local Adult Protective Services agency for support. They will offer resources and support. In Ventura County call 805-654-3200 and in Los Angeles County call 1-877-477-3646.
There are professional companies that specialize in hoarding cleanouts for a fee. There are also some volunteer organizations who may be able to help with smaller tasks, such as Caregivers: Volunteers Assisting the Elderly. In severe cases code enforcement may need to get involved to ensure the safety of the resident and the neighbors.
Hoarding is a complex problem but always the first step is helping the person be ready to make a positive change in their life. By reflecting to your friend in a kind and non-judgmental way what you are seeing in their home and how you wish to help, you have an opportunity to speak that change. All we have is our ability to care for one another and help people understand that there is help and support available when and if they are ready.
Martha Shapiro can be reached at Senior Concerns at 805-497-0189 or by email at email@example.com.